York County’s Own ‘Forbidden Oysters’

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Note: The Virginia Free Citizen has been actively covering York County’s agriculture rezoning plans as well as oyster farmer Greg Garrett’s own battles with the county. For more information, including responses from York County Board of Supervisors Chairman Don Wiggins and County Attorney James Barnett, please check the following articles: Oyster Farmer Faces Continued Battle Against York County and Agricultural Rights of York County Citizens Threatened by Board of Supervisors Rezoning Plans

The Virginia Free Citizen media team visited Greg Garrett’s oyster farm on his private property to learn more about his battle against York County to protect his oyster operations.

Greg Garrett decided to start oyster farming about five and a half years ago because he wanted to do his part to help clean the Chesapeake Bay. One oyster is said to clean, or filter, up to 50 gallons of water a day. But little did Garrett know, for three years, he would be tangled up in lawsuits with his county government.

Garrett says he is a direct decedent of one of the founders of Yorktown, who was sent by the King of England to the New World. On his website, Garrett claims that his family has been growing oysters in the York River since 1620. Garrett dedicates nine underwater acres leased by the state to his oyster operations and he ships his oysters to retailers all over the country.

Garrett didn’t even eat oysters when he first started farming them, but his friends raved about his “Forbidden Oysters'” flavor. He then decided to sell his oysters to restaurants, but first he had to obtain seven permits, leases, licenses and certifications from the state of Virginia, all of which he says he attained. He said he had no problems for two years.

Garrett said his battle to protect his oyster farm from county overregulation began when the county required Garrett to obtain a special-use permit for his oyster business, which he operated from his residential property at the time. Agriculture is permitted on the property, which is zoned as Rural Residential (RR).

According to Garrett, the county denied him the special-use permit.

“We found out pretty quickly that they weren’t going to give us a special-use permit, which basically meant we would have to shut down the entire oyster farm,” he said.

Garrett then sued the county for requiring him to obtain a special-use permit in an agricultural district. Although Garrett won in circuit court, the county appealed to the Virginia Supreme Court and won.

Garrett claims that York County officials changed the definition of livestock to exclude shellfish before the hearing, which he believes helped the county win its case in the Supreme Court of Virginia.

The county has filed a new lawsuit against Garrett and his wife for continuing his oyster operations without a special-use permit, which Garrett said he reapplied for in April of this year.

Garrett’s battle against York County has received national media attention from Fox Business Network’s John Stossel and CBN’s 700 Club.

“The media influence has definitely helped us in the battle because it applies subtle pressure to … not from our own perspective, but from the perspective of citizens,” he said.

Garrett said, based on his research, York County is the only county in Virginia that has opposed oyster aquaculture. Garrett also said the general public supports aquaculture.

“The thing about this that’s so confusing is that people are not against aquaculture, people are for local seafood and shellfish that clean the rivers and the bay here in Virginia and Maryland and other places. People want that,” Garrett said. “But the rulers, the ones that think they’re rulers, the ones that were elected to serve us, they are the ones who are against it.”

However, Garrett claims that the York County Board of Supervisors has continually abused its powers by using overregulation of aquaculture to personally attack him.

“I’ve been involved in the political process for many years and I have pointed out lies that have been told by elected officials about things they have done that are contrary to the principles they say they stand for and therefore this is an extremely personal attack,” Garrett said. “The attack is not against oysters, the attack is really against me and one of the ways they’ve come against me is the oysters.”

Garrett stated in an email his closest neighbor, York County Planning Commission member Tim McCulloch sued he and his family, as well as the commonwealth of Virginia, when Garrett applied to build a residential pier hundreds of feet from McCulloch’s property. According to Garrett, McCulloch filed the lawsuit because he claimed the pier blocked his view and that the pier would wash up on his property if it broke during a storm.

Garrett also stated an anonymous source told county officials that Garrett was planning to build a commercial marina on his property and rent out boat slips. Garrett said his letter to neighbors was a response to McCulloch’s lawsuit to address the claims against Garrett.

“I basically said (in the letter) that I have no intention of ever having a commercial operation or business on my docks, addressing the ‘rumor’ that I was going to rent out boat slips.” Garrett stated.

According to Garrett, McCulloch operates his own much larger commercial oyster farm from a commercial property (where aquaculture is permitted) next to McCulloch’s home.

Although McCulloch’s commercial oyster operation is conducted only on commercial property, Garrett stated McCulloch’s oyster farm is more intrusive to the neighborhood than his oyster farm. Garrett’s farm is located hundreds of feet from McCulloch’s home, the only adjacent property. However, Garrett states McCulloch’s farm is located next to several residences.

“The zoning is not the important question,” Garrett stated. “We are both zoned for what we are doing. Compatibility is the issue.”

Garrett says every complaint he has received directly about his farm, which is located on an isolated point in the Dandy area of York County, deals only with hypothetical concerns.

Garrett, who is also a realtor, says he knows from his 37 years of experience in the realty business what does and does not affect property values.

“It’s just crazy the idea that it’s (Garrett’s oyster farm) going to create a problem in the neighborhood,” he said.

Garrett remains positive that he will win the lawsuit. In the meantime, Garrett has found other ways to operate his oyster farm without violating the county’s rules.

“Basically, they’re saying that they have jurisdiction over our land and jurisdiction over piers because of the zoning laws,” he said. “They don’t have jurisdiction over the water and they recognize that, so our oyster operation is now conducted on boats and the boats are not tied to our dock.”

The boats he uses for oyster farming cannot be tied to the docks and he must ship the oysters out by a boat that is not tied to the dock as well.

“The oyster farmers just jump on the boats and do the oyster work there and they use a boat that’s also not tied to the dock to deliver the oysters to a commercial site where the oysters can be offloaded and put into refrigerated trucks, to transport them to the end market, to consumers or to seafood (retailers),” Garrett said.

Garrett’s battle against the county inspired the name for his oysters.

“Our oysters are called ‘Forbidden Oysters’ because they are forbidden by our county rulers,” Garrett said. “They’ve decided (they want to) shut down our oyster farm and I guess for the last two and a half years now they’ve been forbidding us to grow them.”

But Garrett is confident that he will not shut down his oyster farm.

“We’re going to continue operations,” he said. “The lawsuit is really just a temporary lawsuit because the new law goes into effect on January 1 and if it was January 2 right now, their lawsuit would be immediately thrown out of court, so the only thing they can do is attempt to punish us between now and December 31.”

Garrett’s oyster farm is located at the mouth of where the York River meets the Chesapeake Bay. His “Forbidden Oysters” are known for tasting mildly salty. Garrett says on his website that his oysters have the right level of saltines and that they’re also “clean, sweet and plump.” Garrett only sells the raw oyster.

“We don’t open the oyster, we sell the oyster that’s still alive in the shell and our oysters are very, very healthy and they’ll live up to two and a half weeks after harvest, as long as they’re kept cold,” he said.

Garrett’s oysters are shipped to restaurants and seafood retailers and wholesalers across the country. His oysters may also be purchased online through his website.

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